Ask three people what it means to be “led by the Spirit,” and you will get five different opinions. For many, to be led by the Spirit simply means to get in tune with our random impulses and sanctify every emotional urge with “the Lord led me” to do this, that or a dozen other things. And while it is true that being led by the Spirit includes being sensitive to the voice of Christ within, being led really is much more practical than that–and more wonderful than that at the same time.
The idea of “being led by the Spirit” comes from Romans 8:14 where Paul said: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Paul’s direct reference is how we as a new Israel are led by the Spirit into a new exodus that takes us out of slavery into sonship. We are led by the Spirit from attempting to live righteously because we are commanded to do so to living righteously because we desire to do so. We are led by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit that dwells within our human spirit and prompts our heart to live right willingly–free will-y, as it were. That is the entire point of Romans 8.
That is the theology of “being led by the Spirit.” But how do we live out “being led” in daily life? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Read your Bible. The Scriptures are God-breathed, and if you want to be led by the Spirit, you must hear what the Spirit is saying through the Word of God. The words of Scripture are the vocabulary of the Holy Spirit. Read, and he will speak.
2. Pray every day, all day. Keep an ongoing conversation with the Holy Spirit. Prayer allows the Holy Spirit to sort out our motives and renew our mind to think the thoughts of Christ as we meditate on Scripture. Prayer wrestles with our will and submits it to God. We are led by the Spirit as we pray in the Spirit.
3. Gather and talk. When we gather with the people of God, we are led by the Spirit at work in the body of Christ. The Spirit at work in the church speaks to us through the teaching of the Word and the shared counsel of others who are living the same life we are. Talk about your decisions with others who share your faith.
4. Stop, look and listen. When we develop the daily habit of reading the Bible, praying and taking seriously the input of other believers, we can then safely trust ourselves to hear the voice of the Spirit within. The inner voice that we hear will not be merely our own desires masked as the will of God. Reading through the Word, sorting out our motives in prayer, receiving wise counsel from others–all of this trains our inner ear to discern the voice of our Shepherd when he speaks.
That is a good start on being led by the Spirit.
Want to go a bit deeper? Check this out.
As I noted above, the background to Paul’s teaching on being led by the Spirit in Romans 8 is the exodus of Israel from the Old Covenant law to the New Covenant of Spirit-led life in Christ. When Paul talks about being led by the Spirit, he means specifically that we must be willing to cross over the sea from the flesh into the Spirit where we are no longer led by the rules and regulations of the law and are led by the direction of the Spirit. Slaves are told what to do; sons are advised as they figure out what to do. Slaves are commanded; sons are counseled.
Jesus spoke about being led like this in John 14 and 15. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, which is Greek (parakletos) for “guide” or “helper.” These days we might call the Paraclete the ultimate “life coach.” Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to come alongside us and guide us through the rugged terrain of life. He promised to guide us into all truth.
The Paraclete is also described by John the apostle as our defense attorney who rises to stand by our side in court and offer the astounding defense that Jesus has already paid the penalty for our crime. (1 John 2)
In Galatians 4 and 5, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete guiding a young son into maturity. The ultimate goal of Christian maturity is to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). A son, though he is an heir, is no different from a slave as long as he remains under the tutelage of an appointed guardian. But when he reaches majority and maturity, the guardian that once cracked his knuckles now walks alongside and advises him respectfully. The young son who once struggled to match his stride with the guardian now walks in step with his teacher. The teacher has now become his counselor.
This is how the Spirit works. The law of God was our guardian commanding us to obey the will of our Father. But now, in Christ, the Holy Spirit has become our counselor, teaching us as we walk alongside and seek his direction. But now, the decisions are up to the son. He must do what is right because he understands it and loves it. The law of God is written on the heart.
The Spirit leads us just as he fills us—from the inside out. As we keep in step with the Spirit, the Spirit provokes our emotions through conviction and love. As our emotions are stirred by the Spirit, our heart is softened and our neck is loosened. Our will surrenders to what is right as the Spirit teaches us the will and wisdom of God. Then, as the Spirit softens our will, our mind begins to open to the revelation of the Spirit as he teaches us the wisdom of God. He lays it all out and then offers us the choice to obey or insist on our own way. Because our emotions are engaged, our will is surrendered and our mind is now being renewed in Christ, we can make the decision to do what is right because we have internalized and externalized the wisdom of God. This is word made flesh, and it is how we fulfill the law by the Spirit.
This is what it means to be led by the Spirit.